17 December 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Niche Game: Black & White

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

Black and White, released is in 2001 by Lionhead studios. You play a deity and your objective is to convert more and more people to your belief system. You can do influence the world through two mediums: your own godly self, which is represented by a giant floating hand, and through your creature, your physical avatar in the world. The creature’s AI learning system is one of the most unique I’ve ever come across, and that alone makes this game worth playing. More on that later.

The title refers to your ability to choose your own path. You can be good or evil and you can complete the game either way. If you choose to follow the path of good, then you might help people grow their crops, save people’s lives as often as possible, and make people feel good. If you want to follow the path of evil, then intimidation is the way, human sacrifice, flying fireballs, that sort of thing. And you don’t have to strictly choose one or the other, you can make every choice however you want. But I suspect your worshippers will give you more belief if they know what to expect. As you lean more toward one side or the other, both your appearance and your creature’s appearance reflect this. Your hand will become red and claw-tipped and veiny if you are evil, and will be glowing and golden if you’re good. Likewise your creature’s appearance will be affected.

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o help you consider the good and evil choices, you have a good and evil conscience which bicker with each other throughout. They also serve to provide missions to you, and which side you listen to determines your alignment. These guys did get annoying after a while, but occasionally they’re actually funny. If you leave the game unattended for a long time they will start talking to each other.

Your way of directly influencing the world is through your hand. You can manipulate objects directly, which includes carrying food, wood, people, rocks, which you can then set down gently or throw. You can uproot trees and plant them elsewhere or drop them at the village to be turned into lumber. And perhaps most importantly, you can perform miracles. Miracles are available in one of two ways, through miracle seeds or by casting them directly. Miracle seeds are free, but are not in wide abundance. Later on in the game, the villagers add extensions to the temple where they worship, filling up your mana which you can drain with spell-casting. If you want a quick boost of mana, you can drop a sacrifice on the altar, either an animal or a human. Benevolent miracles include healing (which works on both villagers and your creature), rain, wood, and food. Malevolent miracles are often attack spells such as fireballs or lightning spells.

The hand is quite powerful, but of course there’s a catch. As a god, you only have power within your own area of influence, an area defined by the number of believers you have and the locations of your towns. You can observe anywhere on the map, nothing is hidden from you, but to manipulate objects you must be within your own area. Your area is clearly marked by a thick red line drawn on the world, and if your hand leaves that area you can see the belief draining from it, drawn back to the worshippers.

This presents a problem, because your area of influence may not stretch all the way to the next unconverted town. You can try to grow your population of believers to stretch your area of influence over there. Or you can use your creature. Your creature is a supernatural animal under your influence. He starts out as a clean slate, only about two stories tall. Near the beginning of the game you can choose one of three animals: the ape, the tiger, or the cow. Each has its own advantage. The ape learns quickly, the tiger is a good fighter, and the cow is average in most stats and just plain lovable. I tend to choose the cow because, well, cows are awesome.

Your creature can do everything you can do, and in many ways can do it better. He can operate outside your area of influence, and once you teach him to cast miracles he can do them as often as he chooses without costing any mana. The trouble is, you don’t have direct control over him. You have to train him to do what you want, and training isn’t easy. You can direct him where to go by putting him on a leash, and you can tell him to interact with objects by clicking on them while holding the leash, but with any object there are more than one action he can perform on them. You can teach him the correct behaviors in two ways, teaching by example or by using positive and negative reinforcement. To teach him by example, put on the leash of learning (there is also a leash of compassion and a leash of aggression), and do yourself what you want him to do, such as casting rain miracles, watering crops, or throwing fireballs. If he sees you do something enough, then he’ll pick up the behavior and start doing it himself. And then there’s the reinforcement. If you tell him to interact with a villager, he might do a few things with it: eat it, throw it, set it down gently, or carry it around for a while. After each of these behaviors you can choose to punish it (by slapping it around) or rewarding it (by rubbing its belly). This will reinforce or deter its behaviors. You can also just ignore it and see how it turns out on its own, but don’t expect it to listen to your commands if it’s been living independently its whole life.

Being a physical creature, it has needs. It must eat and it must sleep to maintain its health. What you want it to eat is up to you, it could eat grain from fields, cattle, or it could eat people. And its behavior affects its appearance and strengths. If you have your creature carry boulders around it will build muscle and get lean. As time passes, it will get steadily bigger and its appearance will be affected by whether you teach it to do good things or evil things.

And when there’s another god around, your creatures can fight! The fighting system I found to be rather awkward, you click a spot on the enemy creature to mark where you want your creature to attack, and then he does so whenever he gets around to it. The fighting is real-time action, but the lag between command and action is much too long. If he loses he disincorporates and reappears at your temple with low health. He never permanently dies, but it’s a big setback, as he is no longer around to impede the other creature. As a god you can still attack the enemy creature directly with miracles or by throwing things at it, but again, only if it’s within your area of influence.

Throughout the game the people make demands of you, more food, more children, more houses, more mercy. You can meet these needs by doing it yourself (like scooping up grain and dumping it into the village store), or you can create disciples to help you along. By setting a person in a field they will become a farmer dedicated only to producing food. If you set a man next to a woman he will become a breeder, etc… And there’s a lot more to these people than is immediately apparent. You can zoom in on any one of them, find out their name, their age, their current activity, their destination. Everyone grows from a baby into old people and die (if something else doesn’t kill them first). There’s a lot of processing going on that isn’t immediately obvious. And you can help construct various buildings to help things along, such as a playground to keep kids occupied (so their parents can work more), and a graveyard so people won’t need to grieve as much about the bodies lying around in the street.

I found this game to be extremely difficult because there is just too much to manage, between the creature and the people. In the first world, there is not much conflict. That world is mostly a tutorial, with no opposing gods, just some side quests and stuff. I think the way to go is to spend this first world tending to your creature, because you don’t need to worry too much about the people–nobody’s trying to steal them away from you. If you could get your creature trained to a sufficiently consistent behavior in the first level, then for the later levels you could spend most of your time tending to the people. For me, I tend to get impatient and move on to the next level, and maintaining the happiness of my people, trying to usurp the other god’s people, and tending to my creature all at once proved too much for me, especially when the towns are so widely separated geographically. And these needy little humans just annoyed me. I got sick of literally telling them where to place every building. If you need a house–build it! I’m not seeing the problem here. But I may just not have had the best strategies for playing the game.

In 2005 there was a sequel released, cleverly titled Black & White 2. I didn’t really like this one. It took a complicated scenario and further complicated it, adding different cultures that could be played as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and adding human warfare. In the first game, humans are pacifist, or at least you never see them cause any damage on purpose. In this one you have to build and maintain armies, and it was all just too much for me, too much to juggle all at once.

If you want to play Black & White, it shouldn’t be too hard to find. I did a quick eBay search and found a few copies. Most of them didn’t have a Buy It Now price, so I’m not sure how much it would end up costing. There were many more copies of Black and White, with Buy It Now prices as low as $10 or so, so if you wanted to try that game out it would be easy to do.

If you want to feel the power of a god, and create good or evil giant animals which can shower love or destruction on your friends and enemies, then check this one out. Enjoy!

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